Tenra inhaled; even on the ridge overlooking the town, the aromas of blood and soot were unmistakable. Pillars of gray haze rose from shattered timber and scorched masonry, ringing the town with a sad halo of death.
Jarnic warriors prowled through the village. A shrill wail cut the air; even as he watched, a middle-aged woman with dark hair was dragged from a smoldering building. Tenra’s heart constricted in recognition: his aunt, a sunny woman with a melodious voice. The barbarians hurled her to the ground. Their guttural laughs mingled with her cries and the rending of cloth. Tenra looked away until her screams faded. He tapped his chest three times with all ten fingers. “From this life, to a better place, dear beloved one.” The words rang hollow in his ears but Tenra could think of nothing better than the village’s own ritual words of passage.
His gaze drifted towards the center of the village. The Jarns erected thick poles from the beams of sundered houses. Grim-faced warriors ported the bronze bodies of the villagers — whether mute in death or shrieking in fear — and nailed them to the fire-blackened wood. The echoes of their hammer blows careened off the hills; to Tenra’s ears, the mallets and shrieks produced an unholy cacophony — one that threatened to drown his sanity. He clamped his eyes shut and took a deep breath.
When Tenra opened his eyes, he glanced towards the little creek just beyond the village. A great flat white rock lay half in the stream and half on the bank. Memories of play with the other village children — when they would play with him — flooded his mind and Tenra allowed himself a wistful smile. That recollection conjured up others: fresh baked bread in his mother’s oven, the delighted chatter of his brothers and sisters, the soft spring grass beneath his feet, the sloe-eyed beauty Lisella, daughter of the village smith….
A darker memory pushed its way to the forefront: his father, brown arms akimbo, his face imperious. Beyond him, Tenra’s family looked on, no sympathy in their gaze. His father glared down at him. The man’s words were thunder, echoing through Tenra’s mind from his begotten past. “Though you have grown, your skin does not darken. The shaman has consulted our ancestors. They say you are cursed, that as you have no color, neither have you a soul.”
“No, Father. Please don’t say that.”
His mother started forward but his father held up his hand, stopping her. “Your skin is an abomination and we cannot have you here among the pure. You are a monster. A demon.”
Tenra trembled. The taunting leers from the neighbors raked his skin. “I am your son.”
“I have no son. By order of the elders, you are banished. Leave now, or you will be killed.”
“Father — ”
Mocking laughter lanced into his ears, burning insults pelted his retreating back. His eyes sought Lisella. Her gaze met his. Lip curled, she turned away. Tenra stumbled into the night, weeping and alone.
He exhaled and the visions faded into the recesses of his thoughts. A great melancholy overtook his spirit and he wondered if he had a right to anything different. He’d expected joy and satisfaction on his homecoming — a chance to right the past, to show his family how wrong they’d been. Instead, Tenra felt nothing but bitter loss worming its way into his mind. When the prisoners below breathed their final tortured breaths, Tenra would be the last of his people. A sense of loneliness enshrouded his spirit and he sighed.
A horse neighed nearby, yanking Tenra from his reverie. A mounted Jarnic warrior, clad in the customary black iron armor, trotted up the ridge behind him. Icy blue eyes regarded Tenra from the confines of a horned helmet. With a nimbleness belying his bulk, the rider slid from his horse. Tenra’s eyes took in the man’s muscular build, battle-scarred armor, and crisp, self-assured movements. Tenra nodded; the man was a warrior born, like those down the hill. Breeze ruffled the barbarian’s crimson cape as he strode forward, bathing the man in the aura of blood — the very image the Jarns had used to demoralize their opponents and drown the land in carnage.
The warrior stopped a few steps shy of Tenra and fell to one knee. “Lord, it is done.”
“Rise.” Tenra bristled; no matter how hard he tried he could not banish the thin, reedy timbre from his voice. He looked back to the village, not bothering to see if his subordinate stood. “Few survivors, I see.”
“They are being disposed of per your instructions.”
Tenra did not respond. For a long moment, only the moan of the wind broke the silence. At last, the man spoke again, his voice hesitant. “My Lord, may I ask a question?”
“Do it quickly.”
“Why here? Half the continent lays at your feet. Why bring our company here to this tiny village, when greater spoils await in the east?”
Tenra looked at his pale hands. They were pasty, almost translucent — far whiter than even the northern skin of the Jarns. The snowy color stood in stark relief against the gilded black armor adoring his lithe frame, and the contrast only propelled Tenra’s anger to the surface. With shaking hands, Tenra brushed the milky, stringy hair he hated so much from his face. He turned away, lest the Jarn see the tears trickling from his eyes, bathing his cheeks with self-loathing. The words slithered from clenched teeth. “Because it had to be done, that’s why. Go rejoin the others and do not question me again.”
“Yes, Lord.” The man hurried away.
Tenra hefted his ebon helmet — steel shaped in the visage of a grinning skull — and returned it to his head. His voice dropped to a whisper. “And because sooner or later, we all have to come home.”
Jonathan S. Pembroke lives with his lovely bride in the American Southwest. When not assisting his wife with her art business, he spends his days shaping wood into strange objects and torturing words into even stranger tales. He also blogs at stoneaxe.livejournal.com, which should not be read by anyone for fear of brain rot. He’s been writing speculative fiction since 2006 and his work has appeared in multiple anthologies.
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